May 2, 2008

On Aug. 8, 2008 – the eighth day of the eighth month of the year ’08 – at exactly 08:08:08 p.m., the Summer Olympics are scheduled to begin in Beijing. The day and hour for the start of the opening ceremony of the Olympics was chosen for its good fortune – a widely held belief in Confucianism and Chinese folk religions. And, in fact, the Summer Olympics could be the first international forum where the growing presence and ambitions of religious groups in China are exposed to a watching world.

According to a 2006 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 31% of the Chinese public considers religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, compared with only 11% who say religion is not at all important. When asked a somewhat different question in a 2005 Pew poll, an even greater percentage of the Chinese public (56%) considered religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives.

Other survey data, as well as Chinese government reports, have also shown that relatively large numbers of the Chinese public consider religion to be important in their lives. This is somewhat surprising given that China has strictly adhered to a secular and even atheistic national philosophy for nearly six decades. As events unfold leading up to and following the Olympics, many people inside and outside China will be interested to see whether Chinese communism will adjust to religious market forces just as it has to economic market forces.

Religious Affiliation in China

While there are no nationally representative surveys of the religious affiliation of the Chinese public, three recent surveys provide some sense of the number of people who belong to China’s five main recognized religions – Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam and Taoism.

A Chinese public opinion polling firm, Horizon Research Consultancy Group, sponsored and carried out the surveys, which were reported in 2005 and 2006 by Pew, and in 2007 by the Committee of 100 (C100)1,a non-partisan organization composed of American citizens of Chinese descent. The surveys are disproportionately urban and representative of slightly more than half of China’s adult population. Six cities and their surrounding areas were surveyed in 2005 and 2006 (of the six cities in each survey, three were the same), while seven cities and their surrounding areas were surveyed in 2007.

The surveys found that less than one-in-five Chinese adults (ranging from 14% to 18%) say they are religiously affiliated. This would make China one of the least religiously affiliated countries in the world. In the United States, by contrast, more than eight-in-ten adults (83%) say they are religiously affiliated, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2007.
Figure 2
But, although the total percentage of religiously affiliated Chinese may not be high, the sheer number of people who say they belong to any particular religion is quite large. If the findings from these surveys were translated into actual numbers, they would nearly equal the estimated number of religiously affiliated adults in the U.S.

A recent survey reported by researchers at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, which was cited in the state-approved China Daily, found that “31.4% of Chinese aged 16 and above, or about 300 million, are religious.” While the actual survey data are not available, the fact that the number was reported by state-run media is perhaps an indication of the large number of people the government believes may be religious (independent of whether these individuals actually consider themselves affiliated with a particular religion).

Buddhism and Taoism

In the three Horizon surveys reported here, Buddhists represent the largest religious group in China, making up between 11% and 16% of the adult population. This seems a reasonable number given that Xinhua, a state-approved news agency, recently put the total number of Chinese Buddhists at “approximately 100 million.”

Ethnic Tibetans, who are predominantly Buddhist, make up only a small portion of China’s overall population and thus only a small proportion of the overall number of Buddhists. The number of ethnic Tibetans, however, is growing. Between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, for instance, their numbers increased by nearly 18% to approximately 5.4 million, compared with China’s overall population growth of almost 12% during those same years. One reason for the more rapid growth among the ethnic Tibetan population may be that, as one of 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities in China, they receive an exception from the government’s strict one-child-per-family policy. Less than half of ethnic Tibetans live in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which helps explain why the recent unrest was spread over several provinces.

All three Horizon surveys also indicate that adherents of Taoism, an indigenous Chinese religion, make up less than 1% of the Chinese adult population. No government estimates either corroborate or question this estimate.
Figure 3
The 2005 Pew poll did find, however, that approximately three-in-five Chinese express a personal belief in the possible existence of one or more supernatural phenomena, religious figures or supernatural beings that are often associated with Confucianism and popular forms of Chinese folk religion. These beliefs range from fortune and fate, to the Jade Emperor (associated with Taoism) and Tathagata (a manifestation of Buddha), to immortal souls and ghosts. While this is not necessarily a measure of the extent to which Chinese self-consciously identify with folk or popular religion, it does suggest that popular religious beliefs may be more widespread than is suggested by religious affiliation alone.


Christianity is China’s second-largest officially recognized religion. The Horizon surveys indicate that less than 4% of the adult population identifies as Christian, but there is indirect evidence that suggests this number could be low. In the three Horizon surveys, Protestants outnumber Catholics, which is generally in line with the government figures for the ratio of Christians associated with state-approved Protestant and Catholic Church associations. These associations represent only the churches registered as government-approved places of worship.

Chinese government figures indicate dramatic growth among Protestants and Catholics, as is seen by comparing the numbers reported in the government’s 1997 White Paper on religion with an updated 2006 “Background Brief” provided to the Pew Forum by the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. The officially reported number of Christians increased from 14 million to 21 million, or 50%, in less than 10 years. During this time, Protestants increased from 10 million to 16 million – a 60% increase – and Catholics from 4 million to 5 million – a 25% increase. While some of this growth may be due to independent Christians registering with the official Protestant and Catholic associations, the new background brief goes so far as to say that Protestantism, in particular, has increased “by more than 20 times” since it “was first brought to China in the early 19th century.”

The number of independent Christians, who on principle have not affiliated with state-approved associations, is more difficult to determine. Religious demographers and researchers generally agree that at least as many Chinese are associated with independent Christian groups, widely known as “house churches,” as with the officially recognized bodies. Although the new background brief provided by the Chinese Embassy reports only a small number of these groups, the document does state that “There are no [government] data available on the number of ‘house meetings’ that exist.”

The best available data on the number of independent or unaffiliated Christians – including independent Christians in house churches and Catholic Christians loyal to the Vatican – come from religious demographers and researchers who have direct connections with these networks. The World Christian Database, for instance, estimates that among the Han majority there are approximately 70 million Chinese associated with more than 300 house church networks. A separate review of house church estimates by a senior researcher at the Global China Center, an academic and research institution based in the U.S. and devoted to the study of China, puts the number at more than 50 million. The Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, which monitors Catholics worshipping in congregations that do not affiliate with the state-approved Catholic association, estimates that there are at least 12 million Catholics in China, 7 million more than acknowledged by the government.

There is some indirect survey evidence that suggests the existence of a potentially large number of unaffiliated, independent Christians. For example, the 2005 Pew survey found that 6% of the Chinese public expresses belief in the possible existence of “God/Jesus” (in Chinese Shangdi/Yesu), a rough equivalent of saying the “Christian God.” This is more than 50% higher than the number of people who self-identify as a Christian in the same poll. The 6% estimate is closer to the estimates of China’s total Christian population made by religious demographers and researchers.


There is also a large number of Muslims in China. The Horizon surveys found that some 1% of the adult population says they are Muslim. This falls short of the number suggested by government statistics. According to the 2000 census, for example, ethnic groups closely associated with Islam numbered 20.3 million, or approximately 1.5% of the total population.

The lower survey estimates likely are due in large part to the fact that the Horizon surveys were not conducted in autonomous regions with predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, such as the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which has a large Hui Muslim population, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where most Uygur Muslims live. According to the 2000 census, Hui, who live in many of China’s provinces, number nearly 10 million, followed by the Uygurs, who number more than 8 million.

The presence of more than 20 million Muslims places China among the top 20 countries in Muslim population size – almost equal to that of Saudi Arabia, for instance, and nearly double that of all 27 European Union countries combined.

Government Officials Interested in Hearing about Religion

Possibly the most intriguing finding regarding religion in China today comes from an analysis by the Pew Forum of a 2005 survey2 conducted by InterMedia, an international research and consulting organization specializing in media and communications. The Forum’s analysis of this unprecedented survey, which included more than 10,000 adults across 21 of China’s 31 mainland provinces, municipal districts and autonomous regions, finds that 33% of Communist Party officials and government employees are very or somewhat interested in having media access to information on the topic of religion. This makes them the most interested occupational group among the dozen or so groups reported.
Figure 4
There are other signs that the Communist Party is taking note of the growing interest in religion in the country. For instance, Hu Jintao, President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, broke with former practice and included a formal discussion of religion at last October’s National Congress. In January 2008, Hu stated to the Chinese Politburo, “We must strive to closely unite religious figures and believers … to build an all-around … prosperous society while quickening the pace toward the modernization of socialism.”

General interest in having media access to information on the topic of religion among the Chinese public cuts broadly across all income and demographic categories. In many countries, women tend to be more involved in religion then men, and therefore possibly more interested in hearing about the topic of religion. In China, however, this is not the case. Approximately one-in-five Chinese men as well as women are very or somewhat interested in the topic of religion.
Figure 5
Religion is also often associated with traditional or rural communities. In China, however, the survey found that interest in the topic of religion was higher among urban residents (24%) than among the rural population (18%).
Figure 6
The survey also found that those with university or higher degrees have the highest interest in the topic of religion (26%). Interest was lowest (18%) among those with a vocational college education. Since more than one-in-four party and government employees in the survey has a vocational college education, the fact that they are so interested in the topic of religion is especially noteworthy.
Figure 7
In terms of income groups, interest in the topic of religion is nearly identical across all categories, except for those with “no or no fixed income” (15%). It should be noted, however, that a substantial number of people refused to answer the income question, a portion of whom may have had no or no fixed income.
Figure 8
Interest in the topic of religion is roughly the same across all the age groups. This broad interest exists despite the huge generational difference between the older generation, which grew up during the Cultural Revolution that tried to eradicate all religion, and the younger, one-child-per-family generation, which is the first to grow up in a more affluent and individualistic China.
Figure 9
When it comes to ethnic groups, those with historical roots in world religions, such as Islam (e.g., Hui and Kazakh) and Buddhism (e.g., Mongolian and Tibetan), are significantly more interested in the topic of religion than the Han majority or ethnic groups associated with traditional or local religions, including animism and shamanism. In the survey, 21% of Han and 23% of ethnic groups tied to traditional religions expressed an interest in the topic of religion, compared with 30% of those who identify with ethnic groups that have historical roots in a major world religion.
Figure 10
It is therefore not surprising that the population of West-Central China (Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan) expresses nearly double the interest in the topic of religion (30%) as those on the Central Coast (Hebei, Jiangsu and Shandong), since West-Central China has high concentrations of ethnic minorities tied to the world religions of Islam and Buddhism.
Figure 11
The relatively high level of interest in the topic of religion by Communist Party and government employees, in particular, may indicate that the government is seeking to come to terms with the interest in religion on the part of many people in China. So, although religion will not be competing in the Olympic Games, it seems to be a more competitive force in China than people imagine.

This report was written by Brian J. Grim, Senior Research Fellow in Religion and World Affairs, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Photo Credit: AP

1 The Pew Global Attitudes Project and the Committee of 100 (C100) purchased data from the Horizon Research Consultancy Group’s self-sponsored survey “Chinese People View the World.” (1) The 2005 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey was a multi-stage random sample of 2,191 Chinese adults in six major cities and their surrounding rural areas (Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Wuhan). The sample was disproportionately urban and not representative of the entire country. Interviews were conducted in person, in the appropriate Chinese dialect, with adults ages 18-60, with a sampling error of plus or minus 2.3%. (2) The 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey was also a multi-stage random sample of 2,180 Chinese adults in six cities and surrounding rural areas (Beijing, Guangzhou, Jinzhong, Luzhou, Shanghai and Xinxiang). The sample was disproportionately urban and representative of 52% of the adult population, with a sampling error of plus or minus 2.3%. (3) The C100 survey of 2007 was a multi-stage random sample of 4,104 Chinese adults ages 18-60 in seven cities, seven towns and ten villages, using a multi-stage random sample that was drawn to generally reflect the overall population. The survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 1.6%. Further details can be found at

2 The Pew Forum purchased selected data from InterMedia’s “Survey on the Lifestyle of Chinese Residents,” which was conducted April-May 2005 (N=10,451). Of the 31 provinces (including regions and municipalities) that constitute mainland China, the InterMedia survey covered 21, making it one of the most extensive surveys of China reported to date. Cities within the provinces and municipalities were selected via simple random selection. For rural areas, the survey selected counties (which include an urban center denoted as county city and rural areas). InterMedia randomly selected counties from the list of “county cities.” Within these selected rural areas, villages were selected via simple random selection. Respondents were asked a battery of questions in the 2005 InterMedia survey, with the stem: “Please tell me how interested you would be in hearing the topic of ___ in reports/features/programs on radio, TV, the press, and the internet? How interested are you in the topic of ___? Very interested, somewhat interested, not very interested, or not at all interested?” The fourteenth item in that series is reported here: “Are you interested in the topic of religion?” Respondents qualified for the question if they have access to media and have an interest in national and international affairs. 7,744 qualified. Contact: for more information on the survey.